The Picture of Health: Mini Med School at WAHS

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Pegasus Air Medical nurse Stephene Hertwig guides students Julie Deacon and Campbell Williams as they perform an airway-clearing procedure called a cricothyrotomy on a pig’s throat during Trauma Skill night at WAHS Mini Med School. Photo: Lisa Martin.

On a recent chilly evening at Western Albemarle High School, 44 students gathered in two science classrooms and, under the guidance of members of U.Va.’s Pegasus Air Medical team, performed cricothyrotomies on pig throats. The session was one of a five-part Mini Med School program offered by WAHS that students flock to, not as part of their required curriculum, not even for high school credit, but because it’s super cool.

Designed by teacher Frank Lawson and career counselor Caroline Bertrand to emulate a popular program by the same name at U.Va., Mini Med School is now in its fourth year at WAHS. “Basically Frank recruited his friends and neighbors who are extremely enthusiastic medical professionals to help design this program,” said Bertrand. “We met five times to map out the activities, and then launched it.” Dr. Kyle Enfield, medical director of U.Va.’s Medical Intensive Care Unit, whom Lawson knew from teaching Enfield’s wife in years past, was instrumental in helping plan the course.

WAHS teacher Frank Lawson helps out in the suture room during his fourth year of coordinating WAHS’ Mini Med School. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Mini Med School sessions are spread throughout the school year—four evening meetings and one field trip—and differ from U.Va.’s program in that they are mostly hands-on experiences. This year, sessions included a “brain night,” featuring speakers on stress management and addiction, plus an examination of human brain slices to identify certain pathologies; a “trauma night” with the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad where students practiced extrication, splinting and patient assessment; and a “life-cycle night” covering sports medicine, obstetrics, cardiology, and hospice care.

“The goal is exposure,” said Lawson, who teaches classes in anatomy and physiology, sports medicine, and medical terminology at Western. “It’s one thing for me to instruct them, but we thought, wouldn’t it be cool to learn how to suture from real doctors, to have the Pegasus flight team bring the helicopter out, to be exposed to lots of different things over each night.” The guest professionals are encouraged to make their presentations fun and to focus on developing interest in the procedures, rather than training the students to proficiency.

Hadrien Padilla tries his hand at a cricothyrotomy on a pig’s throat under the direction of Pegasus Air Medical paramedic Logan Dudley. Photo: Lisa Martin.

By all accounts, the program is achieving its goals as students are able to explore their interests in preparation for college and careers. “I want to major in biology or chemistry and then go to medical school to become a surgeon,” said Stephanie Hass, a senior whose mom was a biology teacher and who serves as one of the student leaders in this year’s Mini Med School. “It’s really cool to be able to have a leg up on the medical jargon and to be better prepared for college classes.”

Kayla Bernstein, a senior who has an internship at U.Va. in pediatrics, said she’s been in surgery and clinical rotations and her favorite so far is developmental pediatrics. Another senior and Mini Med School leader, Mary Moffett, who is currently taking Western’s EMT class and goes on clinicals at U.Va.’s emergency department, thinks she might ultimately become a flight paramedic. While some students already know they are aiming for a career in a medical field, others are merely curious and glad for the chance to check out the possibilities.

Mary Moffett and Zach Patterson practice suturing skills on pigs’ feet during Trauma Skills night at WAHS Mini Med School. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I want to be a doctor because I watched Grey’s Anatomy,’ but they don’t really know what actually is happening and whether they can even stand the sight of blood,” said Hass. Mini Med School offers that opportunity and more. On “trauma skills night,” each student wielded a scalpel and made precise incisions into their pig throat, getting a feel for the emergency procedure that can clear a blocked airway. Pegasus flight professionals guided them and described how and when the technique would be used. 

“We looked at the shortages of doctors, nurses, and other practitioners in the medical fields. We knew that 15% of our students at Western eventually go into those fields, and the Mini Med School seemed a perfect fit and to really address a need,” said Lawson. One of his favorite stories is of a student who was part of the first Mini Med class and joined the Rescue Squad after seeing them in action. He became an EMT, then went to PVCC and U.Va. to earn nursing degrees, and this year came back to Mini Med to teach new students how to use stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs on trauma night. “I love how he came full circle like that,” said Lawson.

Lawson and Bertrand organize the entire program each year, and are always looking for new opportunities for the students. “We’re arranging our field trip for the spring and really hope to go to U.Va.’s cadaver lab,” said Bertrand, “and we want to see the mannequins in the nursing school, which are programmed to answer questions.” Lawson envisions an all-orthopedic session featuring orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, and athletic trainers teaching hands-on evaluation techniques. Medical-minded WAHS students say, bring it on! 

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